Mariah Bell grabs early lead at 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships with strong short program

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  • Mariah Bell
    American figure skater

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Between the last two spins in her short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Thursday night, Mariah Bell only had one thought.

"I remember ... just thinking, 'OK, don't trip here,' " she said.

Shortly thereafter, she was pumping her fist and flashing a huge smile, as fans at Bridgestone Arena applauded and threw toy flowers onto the ice.

With an emotional short program, Bell took an early lead in the women's competition at nationals – the last competition before the U.S. Olympic figure skating team is named. She won the short program portion with a score of 75.55, one point ahead of second-place finisher Karen Chen, who also impressed.

Alysa Liu, 16, came in third with a score of 71.42 after failing to land her triple Axel.

For Bell, it was the first short-program victory of her career at nationals – and a performance that put her in prime position to earn one of the three spots on Team USA.

"I really worked on, the last couple seasons, trying to stay in the moment throughout the program," Bell said. "Obviously as things are going well, there's like an excitement that's building. But a couple years ago, I fell on my footwork because I was getting a little ahead of myself. So I was trying to kind of keep myself mellow today."

Bell, who is coached by 2018 Olympian Adam Rippon, hit a triple flip-triple toe loop combination early in her program and rode that momentum the rest of the way.

Chen, who skated directly after her, then turned in a terrific performance of her own, strengthening her odds of making a second consecutive Olympic team. The 22-year-old said she was particularly happy after switching programs prior to the event.

"It was definitely a risk to change my short program coming here. But I also knew it would be risky if I kept something that I just wasn't enjoying," Chen explained. "So I'm really happy with how I just delivered and attacked this program."

The night also featured impressive performances from both the youngest and oldest skaters in the field. Isabeau Levito, 14, showed poise beyond her years in her senior debut and ended up spending much of the night atop the leaderboard with a score of 71.00. She finished fourth.

Mariah Bell skates in the short program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
Mariah Bell skates in the short program during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.

Meanwhile, 26-year-old Gracie Gold drew a standing ovation with what she described as her first clean program at nationals since 2014 – the same year she represented Team USA at the Olympics.

Gold's strong performance, coupled with a letdown from 2020 U.S. runner-up Amber Glenn, left open the slim possibility that the veteran could qualify for a second trip to the Games, eight years after her first. Gold described it as "in theory, completely attainable."

"And that is the goal that I've been training for," she said. "... I've done clean programs in practice, at home. I've been skating really well here. I skated really well tonight. Copy and paste for tomorrow."

'I genuinely was so happy for her': Gracie Gold has captivating performance at US Olympic figure skating trials

Cain-Gribble, LeDuc ahead in pairs

Snowy weather in Nashville kept Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc from getting to the practice rink on time Thursday morning, and cut short their warmup.

But that certainly didn't impact their performance a few hours later.

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc set a new event record of 79.39 in the short program, slipping past the team of Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson and moving into first place in the pairs competition. The free skate is Saturday.

"One of the greatest things that helps us achieve success in competitions is adaptability," LeDuc said. "... We plan for anything, so that nothing really surprises us."

There are two spots up for grabs on Team USA in pairs, and the eight teams competing at nationals might very well be vying for just one of them. Favorites Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from the competition Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for COVID-19, but they are expected to petition for a spot on Team USA.

Contact Tom Schad at tschad@usatoday.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US figure skating national championships: Mariah Bell shines